As I rode the train northward through paddy fields and old wooden houses, the shore of Lake Biwa drew closer and closer as the I entered Nagahama City. This would be one of the two real sightseeing hotspots I would spend time in during the trip–the other being Otsu–and I was looking forward to what Nagahama had to offer.
After detraining, I headed out toward Nagahama Castle, which is about 10 minutes or so on foot from the station, near the lakeshore. Nagahama Castle is not the most impressive structure I’ve ever seen, and even though it’s a modern reconstruction, it has a certain charm to it. Upon looking through the museum inside, I learned that it was at located at a vital location near Sekigahara, a mountain location where the decisive battle between the Tokugawa and Hideyoshi alliances was fought in 1600 to determine the future path of Japan, which ended up being one of long-awaited prosperity and peace for more than 250 years. The castle is small, but the view from the top is impressive, as you can look out over Lake Biwa as well as out toward the rolling hills around Sekigahara. Gazing at the illuminated castle keep that night, I had to admit the odd-shaped structure was not overly impressive, but in my mind its historical significance has left an imprint in my memory that is far bigger than the fortress’ physical stature.
Next I went to Kurokabe Square. This is considered the center of Nagahama, and its name comes from the stately old black-walled (“kurokabe”) building that acts as its centerpiece and gives the district its name. The two-storey building was built in 1899 and served originally as the Daihyaku Sanju Bank building, but today it is a well-known shop selling the famous glassware of Nagahama on the first floor and imported glassware and jewelry on the second floor. The shop’s goods were absolutely amazing, and since I had come all the way to Nagahama, I couldn’t resist buying a few glass animal figurines (which somehow made it home undamaged). The surrounding area also has a number of wooden Edo- and Meiji-Period buildings. I splurged at a restaurant nearby and bought sukiyaki with Omi beef, a regional specialty. Though expensive, this tender, delicious, high-quality beef is worth it. Afterward, I visited a couple of temples in town.
In the morning I got up early to catch the ferry to Chikubushima, an island in the middle of the lake where a temple and a shrine are located. I threw my things in a locker and walked to the ferry pier, only to find that (1) the time schedule in my guidebook was out of date and I had just missed the boat I planned to take, and (2) even though I thought I was clever enough to arrive early in the morning to avoid crowds, so had everyone else in Shiga Prefecture. Thankfully, I got a window seat on the ferry and we set sail across the placid waters of Lake Biwa.
As the boat closed in on Chikubushima, everyone went out onto the deck to take pictures, but I decided to wait until the return trip–which was a smart move, since it wasn’t nearly as crowded on deck during the return trip. The approach reminded me a bit of the time I visited Alcatraz in San Francisco, sans the chill running up my spine. Chikubushima itself was not as good as I had expected, although the imposing old gate of Tsubusuma Shrine and the beautifully carved Buddha statue inside were impressive, and the bright orange pagoda of Hoganji Temple surrounded by vibrant tropical greenery was refreshing. The shrine boasts a unique way of praying: you buy a pair of round ceramic fragments, write your name on one and your prayer on the other using a brush, and then try to throw them both through a Shinto gate (torii) perched below on a rock in the water.
After boarding the ferry back to Nagahama, snapping said photograph, and relaxing in the air-conditioned cabin after a lot of stair-climbing, I started to mentally plan the afternoon. I would ride the JR line around the north edge of the lake and down to Makino on the west side, put my things in a locker there, go sightseeing further south in Katata and Imazu, then return and catch a shuttle to the hotel and find a restaurant to eat dinner at. Little did I know that a combination of incorrect information, misleading information, the reality of the countryside would nullify my plan.
I went to Nagahama Station and saw that the next train would be leaving in a half hour. As the departure time approached, an announcement from the platform speakers informed us that the trains were now delayed a couple of minutes, followed by another that they were delayed by 30 minutes, meaning I would be waiting an hour just to get on the train. The train finally arrived, 40 minutes late, which just goes to show how dangerous it is to rely on JR (in West Japan, JR seems to have trouble handling busy travel weekends). I had to switch at Imazu-Shiotsu station for the Kosei Line, but thanks to that lovely delay, my train had left one minute before and I now needed to wait another hour until the next one came. After about 35 minutes I got impatient and decided to go call a taxi, so I went down the longest station staircase I have ever seen inside a train station and asked the station attendant for the nearest taxi company’s phone number. As luck would have it, the train arrived at that very moment (apparently the Kosei Line was delayed, too), so I ran up the longest staircase ever with my bags in hand and barely slipped through the door and into a vacant seat before it departed. We soon cut through a tunnel and rushed out into the breathtaking, verdant scenery of northern Biwa.
Despite the information on JR’s website, when I asked the station attendant where the coin lockers were, he gave me the “are you insane?” look and told me there were none. I couldn’t very well go sightseeing with my bags in tow, so I called the hotel, but despite their claim to be a lakeside resort, they didn’t even have a pickup service from the station. This meant I would have to haul my stuff 15 minutes to the place. Furthermore, there was nothing resembling a restaurant near the station–mostly just old houses and paddy fields. With a groan, I put one foot in front of the other. With trains that arrived only once and hour (and unpredictably delayed), my arrival at Makino several hours later than planned, and my legs worn out by the time I walked through the hotel’s front entrance, it seemed as if things that day would not go as planned.
Fortunately for me, when it comes to trips, I thrive on unpredictability. Stay tuned for part 3.
I wrestled with the other travelers boarding at Osaka Station, knowing as they did that if I didn’t get a seat now I would be standing for the next hour and a half. It was a rare five-day weekend, and everybody in Japan was off to their own destination, mad with travel fever. As the train rushed out of Osaka, through Kyoto, and into the mountain tunnel leading to Shiga Prefecture, I felt the tension built up over a week of overtime work go out of my body and a smile float to my lips. I had this trip all planned out–or so I thought.
This was not my first time in the Lake Biwa area. I had previously spent a night in Omi-Hachiman and toured the area, including the beautiful canal district, and the mountaintop temple called Chomeiji (lit. long life temple). These are two truly wonderful places–the canal district for its beautiful old townscape that puts Kyoto’s Gion district to shame, and Chomeiji for its grand old buildings dotting the slopes surrounding serene Lake Biwa. Omi-Hachiman was truly an amazing experience, and I ended up spending the whole day there rather than continuing on to Azuchi as I had originally planned. My pleasant surprise at Omi-Hachiman and my unfulfilled goal of visiting Nobunaga’s former stronghold in Azuchi was my inspiration to spend the long holiday making a full loop around Lake Biwa.
Azuchi is the place where Oda Nobunaga, one of the three great unifiers of medieval Japan, built his lavish castle to display his power and wealth. It was covered in gold and the paintings inside were done by the best artists of the day. Unfortunately, it was mysteriously burnt down just three years after its completion, but it still remains in people’s memories as the symbol of over-the-top, luxurious Momoyama-Azuchi culture. Not much remains of the castle (mostly just some old walls), but the surrounding area and the view of Lake Biwa the site commands are still impressive. I rented a bike near Azuchi station, rode out to the mountain, and proceeded to make the steep climb to the top. Biking around is the best way to see the sights of Azuchi, and after going about five minutes from the train station, I found myself riding through crisp, clean air among bright green rice fields almost ready for harvest. The climb to the castle ruins is quite beautiful, and you can see Nobunaga’s (uncharacteristically) humble mausoleum along the way. Afterward, I swung by a few museums, including the Nobunaga no Yakata museum which has a recreation of the castle itself that was formerly displayed at the 1992 World Expo in Seville, Spain.
The woman working at the tourist information center was a great help when I first arrived in Azuchi, and on the way back, I stopped again at the information center for ice cream and a rest. The two of us chatted for a while in the (mercifully) air-conditioned room, and I learned that they are currently showing a film about Nobunaga’s Azuchi Castle, which explained why television crew had been filming live at the museums I visited.
I stayed the night in nearby Omi-Hachiman, in a business hotel run by an elderly couple that was located between the station and the historic district. Having just come from Osaka, I was shocked at how quiet the city was at night. After taking a short nap, I headed out to find something to eat, but couldn’t find any restaurants except for McDonald’s, Lotteria, a really depressing food court with one restaurant that was closed, and a couple of izakaya. I finally came across as small bar located on a side street, and went in to take a look. It was a reggae bar not unlike something one would encounter in Namba, and there were only two staff members. The food was good and the drinks were standard fare, but unfortunately nobody else was in the place the whole time I was there. Even more odd, the staff never even struck up a conversation with me, but silently watched me eat, which made me more than a little uncomfortable. I have been in empty bars in Osaka, and it’s always been a great chance to get to know the staff better, but this was just awkward. Despite this experience, I had met mostly friendly people that day–something that would change as I moved north into the more rural parts of Lake Biwa.
But I was already thinking about tomorrow and my next destination, the coastal castle town of Nagahama. This was the first moderaly long trip I had taken almost entirely alone, and I was ready to see all that I could see.